Most people are aware that the Norse explorer Leif Eriksson was the first European to reach America, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus, but very few know he arrived as part of a Christian mission. Fewer still realize Leif Eriksson was an Orthodox Christian. Having become a hirdman (guard) of the royal army of King Olaf Tryggvason in Norway, Leif had himself accepted baptism into the Christian faith, and had received from the King orders to travel to Greenland with a priest in order to convert the Norse settlements there.
When their ships were blown off course, Leif and his companions ended up in what we now know as Newfoundland. After getting back on course, and converting the Greenlanders to Christ, Lief and his crew returned to this Newfoundland, where they built permanent settlements, settlements that included the construction of churches. While the Norwegian presence in North America was short lived, the fact that the first Christian presence on the continent was Orthodox is significant.
Although King Olaf Tryggvason had accepted baptism at Canterbury in England, the first Christian rulers in Scandinavia were kinsmen of the rulers of Gardarike, or Kiev (The Rus, of course, were not Slavs but Scandinavians, most hailing from Sweden). King Olaf had himself grown up under the protection of Grand Prince Valdemar (Vladimir), who famously converted the Rus to Christianity in 988. Norse Christianity was Orthodox in tone and appearance from the beginning, and the last of Norway’s pre-schism Christian kings, Harald Hardrada, was openly rebuked by Rome for adhering to Eastern traditions. He brought into the Norwegian Church a number of priests and bishops from Novgorod and Gardarike, and also Miklagard (Constantinople), where he had headed the Varangian guard in service of the Byzantine emperor. The first Christian presence in the Americas, then, was not merely Orthodox in the sense of pre-schism, but had strong ties to the cultural and ecclesiastical traditions of the Orthodox East. This fact can clearly be seen in the interiors of the thousand year old Norwegian stave churches that we see today.
With love in Christ,
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(Abbot Trypon offers his thanks to Father Kristian, a Norwegian Orthodox priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Great Britain, on whose writing on the subject he based his blog article.)